Politics of Poverty

Why should the World Bank support Free, Prior and Informed Consent? Their report explains.

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Wearing traditional Kichwa dress, women work together to tend the crops in their traditional garden. Photo: Percy Ramirez/ Oxfam America

New World Bank report calls for Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) in the midst of ongoing World Bank consultations on its own safeguards.

Next week the World Bank will host a public consultation in Washington DC around its draft environmental and social “safeguards”— World Bank policies that aim to avoid and minimize harm to people and the environment caused by their projects. The DC consultation is one of several being held around the world. On the docket for discussion will be the Bank’s approach to protecting indigenous rights.

Indigenous peoples have identified FPIC as one critical tool for protecting their universally recognized rights to land and natural resources. FPIC requires that indigenous peoples and local communities be adequately informed about projects that affect their lands in a timely manner, free of coercion and manipulation, and should be given the opportunity to approve or reject a project prior to the commencement of all activities. It also calls for inclusive decision-making where the rights of women, the elderly, and children are considered.

A new World Bank published report entitled Indigenous Latin America in the Twenty-First Century comes out strong on FPIC. It states:

“Whether it is entrenched in law and regulations or the result of de facto demands of the affected indigenous peoples, FPIC is a necessary feature of successful decision making.”

The report highlights some examples of requirements and best practice relating to FPIC in Latin America, and notes that FPIC is an “important tool to guarantee the participation of indigenous peoples in aspects that can affect their lives, cultures, and assets.” The research presents FPIC as both a useful and necessary tool, and finds that “stakeholders across the region increasingly accept that FPIC is essential to sustainable decision making.” Sounds like the case is closed, right?

Unfortunately, debate continues. While an FPIC requirement for projects affecting indigenous peoples has been included in the Bank’s proposed revised safeguard policies (both the first and second drafts), some members of the World Bank’s board of directors (the ultimate policy approvers) continue to push against such a requirement. They would like to provide governments with discretion over its application, even though FPIC is a right for indigenous peoples under international law through the UN, and the World Bank itself is part of the United Nations system.

For example, some African governments argue that it can be difficult to distinguish which communities are “indigenous peoples” in Africa, or that a policy establishing particular protections for indigenous peoples would be discriminatory or might exacerbate social tensions in the African context. However, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) – a body of 11 experts elected by the African Union to protect and promote human rights on the continent – has stated clearly that the recognition of indigenous peoples does not privilege one group over another, but rather helps to protect groups that have experienced marginalization and discrimination historically. In a 2014 letter to the Bank, ACHPR’s working group on indigenous populations/communities notes that its own research provides “clear guidance on who indigenous peoples’ are in Africa and what they aspire” and “has indeed eased social tensions and triggered dialogues in several African states.” The working group has stated plainly: “conflicts do not arise because people demand their rights but because their rights are violated.”

Some headway has been made: a problematic opt-out clause was removed between the first and the second drafts of the safeguards, but a vague waiver for the whole policy still exists and the pressure to remove FPIC from the final draft continues. This is despite the fact that the World Bank’s private sector lending arm – the International Finance Corporation – adopted an FPIC requirement for its clients in 2012. Several oil, mining, and food and beverage companies; industry associations; multi-stakeholder initiatives; and banks also have FPIC policies in place.

Without a strong FPIC provision in its safeguards–free of any loopholes—the Bank’s ability to prevent its projects from violating indigenous rights will continue to be limited. Indigenous peoples have close ties to their lands and natural resources, and they have the right to a real say in decisions that affect them. This goes beyond mere information provision or dialogue—they should be able to give or withhold their consent. A strong FPIC requirement by World Bank will help to guard against the efforts of vested interests to undermine indigenous rights, and help to reduce the risk of costly social conflict.

Now the World Bank has an opportunity to put forward a new indigenous peoples policy that upholds the right to FPIC. Let’s hope that the Bank takes its own good advice and does so.

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